On this day in 1964 Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast was published, and on this day in 1943 Michael Palin was born. Palin has taken on the Hemingway legend twice, once in his television series-book, Hemingway Adventure (1999) and once in his novel, Hemingway's Chair (a 1995 bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book). The Adventure tracks Hemingway through Paris and the other famous places, if only to peer from a distance: here the wall-plaque to mark the hotel where Verlaine died and Hemingway wrote; here the bistro where Hemingway drank rum "smooth as a kitten's chin" while writing of Nick Adams drinking in Michigan; here the restaurant at which Hemingway interrupted his dinner with Fitzgerald to look at his penis in the washroom, and declare it to be of normal size ("No plaque on the wall to this effect," says Palin). But A Moveable Feast itself peered from a distance, and played with the facts: "If the reader prefers," Hemingway says in his preface, "this book may be regarded as fiction." He began it in 1957, three decades after the years they describe. It was one of his last pieces of writing, completed just before heading north from Cuba to Ketchum, Idaho --by way of the Mayo Clinic, for the shock treatments that would erase so much of the memory but not the suicidal depression at having nothing but memory left.
Some reviewers complained that Palin's Hemingway Adventure arrived nowhere new or worthwhile -- one likened the sight of Palin holding a shotgun to that of "Sister Wendy Beckett holding a vibrator." Others see this as Palin's point, in both the travel book and the novel: his fascination is not with Hemingway but Hemingway-gazing, especially by Walter Mitty types looking for their moment. The hero of Hemingway's Chair is a soft-faced thirty-six-year-old still living with his mother in Norwich. By day he is assistant manager at the Post Office; by night he is Papa. He types on a vintage Corona; he wears outdoorsy shirts from L. L. Bean and a German army belt; he drinks grappa, kept in a WWI Italian army first-aid cabinet -- though he knows all the booze, and can tell a pushy-Yank doing research on Hemingway's women a thing or two about the books:
"I don't see any Bollinger Brut, 1915."
Martin picked up the reference eagerly. "As bought for David Bourne by Marita."
She nodded and smiled. "Right. The Garden of Eden. The only novel I can still read."
Martin ignored this. "I only buy his non-fiction drinks," he explained, pushing the door shut again.
"There's not much non-fiction in Hemingway," Ruth smiled. "Except in his novels."
Martin looked vaguely troubled.
When the hobby begins to overwhelm the day job, the troubles deepen. But so does the humor, such as when Martin the former assistant manager returns to the P.O. to queue up as Papa in one of his "black-ass" moods:
"Hello Martin," Shirley replied cautiously. "How are you?"
His eyes searched behind the counter.
"It must be a nice change not having to get up at six thirty every morning," Shirley ventured warily.
Martin nodded enthusiastically. "Means I can get up at six, when it's barely light enough to see the pine trunks and the soles of your feet are wet from the dew on the stones, and the touch of the air from the sea promises how the day will be. It's the best time to write."
Shirley was aware of disapproving faces behind the rope. "What is it you wanted, Martin?"
He sighed heavily. "I want the same as anybody else, daughter. I want to know that I've taken care of the big things. Like love and hate and fear. And that I haven't done too bad at the small ones either. And when the time comes to make my peace --"
She interrupted. "D'you want stamps or anything?"
Palin says that he first read Hemingway as a teenager, at about the time that Hemingway was writing A Moveable Feast. The books made an impression; "unfortunately, in the late 1950s there wasn't much call for provincial English schoolboys to carry mortars up Spanish hillsides, and though I had a goldfish I hadn't fought for seven hours to land it."